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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Can Eagles fly without Carson Wentz?

Foles (L) replaces Wentz (R) for NFL playoffs
This afternoon for the first time since the 2013 season the Philadelphia Eagles will take part in an NFL playoff game.

For my fellow Eagles fans, if it seems that we've suffered through a long drought without a postseason appearance, that's because we have.

In the last 30 years there has only been one other stretch, from 1997-99 prior to the Andy Reid-Donovan McNabb era, where the Eagles missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons.

The turnaround from the recent downturn for the franchise can easily be traced to one event, and basically to one person. That would be the selection of quarterback Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Wentz somewhat unexpectedly became the starting quarterback immediately. He led the Eagles to a 3-0 start as a rookie that fall, demonstrating the talent and leadership that had inspired team management to make him such a high draft selection.

After the defense collapsed during a five-game late season losing streak, Wentz orchestrated a pair of 2016 season-closing victories over the division rival New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.

Those late wins and his overall play buoyed the hopes and dreams of the Eagles rabid fan base for the 2017 season. Wentz and the team did not disappoint. He passed for over 3,200 yards and 33 touchdowns in leading the team to an 11-2 record this fall.

But the 13th game would prove to be unlucky in the extreme. Wentz was matched up against the quarterback chosen ahead of him with the top pick in that 2016 NFL Draft, Jared Goff, as the Eagles visited the Los Angeles Rams.

Wentz would throw four touchdown passes to out-duel Goff at the Los Angeles Colosseum in a 43-35 thrilling shootout. With four minutes to go in the third quarter, Wentz was hit awkwardly as he tried to score on a keeper from the Rams two-yard line.

Four plays later, Wentz passed to Alshon Jeffery to put the Eagles up by 31-28. However, on that earlier keeper play, Wentz had injured his leg. He would leave the game following the TD pass, replaced by backup Nick Foles for the first time all season.

A rusty Foles would go just 6-10 for 42 yards, but the Eagles defense took over. The 'D' forced a pair of fumbles, one setting up a Jake Elliott field goal and another returned for a touchdown by Brandon Graham.

It was learned following the game that Wentz had suffered major injuries. He would require surgery to repair a torn ACL and a partially torn IT band, as well as some meniscus damage. Not only would Wentz miss the rest of the 2017 season, but he is likely to miss much of the 2018 season as well.



With their NFL MVP candidate leader out, the Eagles turned the reigns of a playoff team over to Foles. The team won their first two games with the backup under center, but those victories over the Giants and the LA Raiders were marked by inconsistent play against inferior opponents.

Those two victories did allow the Eagles to clinch the top overall record in the NFC, and thus home field advantage for however long they last in the playoffs.

A season-closing 6-0 loss to the hated rival Cowboys continued the inconsistent play, with Foles seeing just limited action. Coach Doug Pederson took the meaningless contest as a chance to rest his regulars and get some game action for the new backup quarterback, Nate Sudfeld.


As the Eagles have waited for an opponent to be determined and then began to prep for their NFC Divisional Playoff game, there has been a lot of tough talk.

But any honest fan of the team has to admit that without Wentz, this has simply not been the same team that built most of the record which put them in this position.

The playoff opponent turns out to be the Falcons, the defending NFC champions. Last February, Atlanta built a 25-3 lead in dominating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. But the Falcons then infamously collapsed, with Tom Brady orchestrating one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history for a 34-28 overtime Patriots victory.

This year, Atlanta suffered a roller-coast season early on. They were just 4-4 after an early November defeat at Carolina. The Falcons then went on a roll, winning six of their last eight. Their defense has led the way, allowing an average of just under 17 points per game over the last seven weeks.

A week ago, the Falcons shut down Goff and the Rams in a 26-13 road victory. They are a dangerous team once again. Led by a local boy quarterback, 32-year old Matt Ryan out of Penn Charter HS, the Falcons are a 2.5-point road betting line favorite over the Eagles on game day.



So the question is completely legitimate: can the Eagles win with Nick Foles as their quarterback? The simplest answer is that yes, of course they can win.

But now things are more complicated than they would have been had Wentz not gotten hurt. With Wentz leading the team, the uber-confident Eagles were on a roll. They were clearly a Super Bowl contender, the best team in the NFC.

The Eagles team that has been on display over the last month has not been a Super Bowl contender, and are clearly not the best team in the NFC.

In order to win in these playoffs, the Eagles are going to have to have three things happen. If any of the three fail to emerge, it will take something miraculous to fashion a victory.

First, the Eagles need their defense to play strong, emotional, inspired football. A half-dozen times this year, that 'D' has surrendered just 10 points or less. But for much of the year, the team won thanks to Wentz and an emerging high-octane offensive attack.

That leads to the second thing that must happen. In two stints with the Eagles, fans have found that there are two different versions of Nick Foles. There is the 'Good Nick', like the one who tossed four TD's in beating the Giants. And there is the 'Bad Nick', represented by his horrible performance a week later against the Raiders.

For the Eagles to win against quality opponents in the playoffs, they need 'Good Nick' to show up. If 'Good Nick' shows up for three weeks, the Eagles can win the Super Bowl. If 'Bad Nick' makes even one appearance, they are likely done.



The final thing that must happen for the Eagles to win in these playoffs is that Pederson needs to emphasize his rushing attack, even more than he did in the regular season.

The Birds have three highly effective running backs in Jay Ajayi (5.8), LeGarrette Blount (4.4), and Corey Clement (4.3) who each averaged more than four yards per carry this season.

The Eagles must be able to run the ball successfully. This will keep the defense off the field, allowing that unit to remain fresh. It will also allow Foles to manage the game much more effectively, giving him time to find someone open among the vastly improved receiving corps of Jeffery, Zach Ertz, Trey Burton, Torrey Smith, and Nelson Agholor.

One factor outside the control of the players is the weather. The extreme cold was obviously a factor for both the Birds and their opponents in the last two games. Against the Raiders and Cowboys, just 35 total points were scored, and a number of passes were dropped by each of the teams.

By game time this afternoon, the temperatures are again expected to be below freezing, with wind chills in the teens. Theoretically, this should benefit the Eagles. They have been playing games in the cold for weeks. The Falcons play their home games in a domed stadium, and have not played a single game in those kinds of conditions all season long.



"Fly Eagles, Fly!" is the team fight song and the fans rallying cry. But can the Eagles fly without Carson Wentz? Yes, they can. But it will take a strong defense, an effective running game, a well-managed game from Nick Foles, good play calling and time management from Pederson, and maybe even an assist from the weather.

That sounds like a lot of things that have to go right for the Eagles to win. That's only because this is the NFL playoffs. Every team still playing is a quality team. You want to win, you have to bring your best. That goes as much for the Falcons, and any other opponent, as it does for the Eagles.

Kickoff is scheduled for 4:35pm at Lincoln Financial Field. The game will be televised by NBC nationally. Radio coverage is provided locally by SportsRadio WIP (94.1 FM) with national radio coverage via Westwood One.

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